Anyone who grew up alongside Commodore’s home computer powerhouse, the Amiga 500, recognises the name Dino Dini. As the man responsible for the incredibly popular Kick-Off series, his name is etched into all of our brains as one of the grandfathers of virtual football. Kick-Off was fast, frantic, and a hell of a lot of fun, and for anyone only now learning about the wondrous world of 80’s and 90’s home computer games, should be one of your first ports of call.
Perhaps even more influential however was Mr Dini’s Player Manager, widely considered to be one of the first, and certainly my first, football management sim. A simple team and player management system was placed over the existing Kick-Off ‘engine’ to make what is still to this day one of the best, and easy to learn, examples of virtual football management. And I spent days, week, months, with the game that in my view gave rise to a genre.
Fast forward a decade and Sports Interactive’s Football Manager series (or Championship Manager as it was originally known) caught my imagination in much the same way Player Manager did all those years ago. There is nothing quite like the feeling of taking a struggling team to glory, or taking a virtual version of the team you support to the Champions League final. Football Manager has always been about carefully balancing risk with reward while being as efficient as you possibly can with spending and roster management. It is like one massive economic problem ready to be solved; albeit one dressed up in short shorts and a muddy strip. And the obsessive in me won’t stop until I’ve taken my team to the top.
To me Football Manager is a giant sandbox full of an almost infinite number of possible combinations to experiment with. Sure its nice to buy all of those dream players that Feyenoord could never afford in real life and build the modern-day equivalent of Rinus Michels’ 1974 Dutch world cup squad, but there is even more satisfaction in scouting and buying up a team of largely unknown quantities and building up to something big. “It may not happen overnight, but it will happen”, you tell yourself as your team slumps to the 10th loss for the season. “I just need one more game”. And so you tweak, experiment and perfect your craft. It is a feeling unrivalled in the gaming world, and I suspect the reason for the series’ incredible success over the years.
The problem is Sports Interactive’s games are so comprehensive and full of options that it is now at a point where its just overwhelming. Spreadsheet after spreadsheet of information is presented in a precise and clinical fashion with a near flawless level of detail, begging you to get down into the nitty gritty and micro manage every aspect of your team’s operation. One loss and you’ll be searching for answers in training regimes, contract clauses and player dynamics. It is ostensibly the perfect simulation of football, if not the perfect simulation of the humanity. But after a long day’s work I honestly just cannot be stuffed.
So it was with great sadness that I gave up a seemingly lifelong Football Manager habit . That was until the Playstation Portable versions. The not-quite feature full versions of the game struck the perfect balance between accessibility and complexity to draw me back into the world of football managing. Buying and selling players, tweaking set pieces and formations and managing training regimes became second nature and before long I was spending time staring into space during the day contemplating how I was going to beat cross-country rival Ajax. Perhaps paradoxically while it was the digestibility that drew me in, it was the hidden complexity and nuance that held me there. The slick and streamlined interface hides this surprising amount of depth beneath its surface in what is either a stroke of game and interface design genius, or a happy accident. Football Manager is known for its complexity and completeness, bur the fact is the stripped down PSP versions took me back to the days of the simplistic joy Player Manager where you are always just one game away from success if you play your cards right.
I feel like Football Manager Classic is built for me, the 30-something that grew up honing their football management craft, and now has less time on their hands to rekindle that love affair. It feels like Football Manager and plays like Football Manager, but instead of the oversaturation of information in the game propr, is built upon the same core values of simplicity and accessibility that made Player Manager so compelling and addictive in the 1990’s. When it comes down to it, really when all is said and done, Football Manager ‘lite’ filled a spot in my gaming repotoir I save for pick up and play experiences. A player transfer on the train, a sneaky game at work, a touch of roundball before dinner, and a spot of Football Manager before bed. Either way it made managing footy on the go absolutely essential portable gaming that I’d kick myself for passing up on the Vita.